2008-09 Team Preview: Pittsburgh Penguins
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OUR EXPERT'S TAKE
By Pierre LeBrunThe Stanley Cup finalist Pittsburgh Penguins had a productive offseason, locking up their core when Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury and Brooks Orpik were the latest to join Sidney Crosby and Ryan Whitney in committing to the team long term.
"It's tough to see guys go," Crosby told ESPN.com. "That's the reality. You go through it with those guys and you share the experiences. You're that close [to a Cup] and you all share the pain. You'd be lying if you didn't say you felt close to those guys. That's just the way it ends up.
"But we know change is just the way the NHL is now, and it's going to be constantly like that. We have a great core group."
There were further setbacks with the injury losses of Whitney and Sergei Gonchar before the puck was even dropped for the 2008-09 season. That's a tough way to start the season.
Penguins GM Ray Shero tried to mitigate the losses up front by reeling in veteran free-agent wingers Ruslan Fedotenko and Miroslav Satan to modest deals. They came cheap and came hungry to play alongside star centers Crosby and Malkin. It doesn't quite replace the firepower of Hossa and Malone, but keep in mind Crosby and Malkin continue to get better. A scary thought. An ankle injury prevented Crosby from another NHL scoring title, and you can bet he's eyeing a return to the top of the NHL's scoring perch.
And let's not forget Jordan Staal. The 20-year-old power forward is entering the final year of his entry-level contract. He was used primarily as the team's No. 3 center last season, in a checking role; but with the departure of Malone, coach Michel Therrien likely will use Staal in a top-six forward role on the wing. That could mean a bigger offensive year for Staal, who dipped from 29 goals in his rookie year to 12 in 2007-08. Still, overall, this group lost a bit of depth.
At first, it appeared the Penguins were rich on the blue line. Then they lost their best two defensemen. Whitney is gone until December as he recovers from foot surgery, while Gonchar needs surgery and is expected to miss four-to-six weeks with a dislocated left shoulder suffered in his first preseason game. Those are huge blows to the power play and puck-moving/transition game. Orpik, Rob Scuderi, Hal Gill, Darryl Sydor, Kris Letang, Mark Eaton and AHL standout Alex Goligoski form the rest of the blue-line group. The Penguins hope the 21-year-old Letang is ready to take bigger strides. But starting the season with $9 million sitting on injured reserve is a serious blow.
Marc-Andre Fleury entered last season as a question mark for many around the league. The 2003 first overall draft pick had yet to consistently prove he warranted such a lofty selection. Well, he answered his critics. After missing two months with an ankle injury, the 23-year-old raised his game to new heights, putting up career bests with a 2.33 GAA and .921 save percentage. He was even stingier in the playoffs, winning 14 games, while posting a 1.97 GAA and .933 save percentage. He signaled his arrival as one of the game's elite netminders and a candidate for one of the three jobs on Team Canada for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. We see no reason for him to regress this season.
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
FROM INSIDE THE GM'S BRAIN ...
By Jay FeasterThe biggest improvement in Pittsburgh is the hunger of wanting more after advancing to the Stanley Cup finals only to fall short versus Detroit. At the same time, the greatest curse in Pittsburgh has been advancing to the finals. While the playoff experience gained and the desire to do it again are tremendous, winning also creates its own set of problems.
Entry-level deals become second contracts, and franchise players now cost a small fortune to retain. Some players don't feel loved and bolt for bigger paydays elsewhere. Some players let their agents do all the talking and leave for basically the same offer you made to keep them in the fold. Keeping a "special" team intact is virtually impossible.
Injuries are also conspiring to make things tougher on the Pens. The loss of Sergei Gonchar and Ryan Whitney on the blue line is tough. At the same time, Pittsburgh has lost not only firepower up front, but also veteran leadership. Some media folks write about Gary Roberts' presence last season in almost messianic terms, saying that Penguins players always asked: "WWGRD" (What Would Gary Roberts Do?). Ruslan Fedotenko and Miroslav Satan need to elevate their offensive games and should, playing with elite centers.
Jay Feaster served as general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning from the 2001-02 season until resigning last season. He is a contributor to ESPN.com.
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• Record: 47-27-8
• Division: First in the Atlantic
• Conference: Second in the East
• Playoffs: Ousted in Cup finals vs. DET
• The Penguins play seven of eight on the road Feb. 21-March 8, in and around the March 3 trade deadline. They play nine of their final 13 at home, so surviving that tough stretch would leave them in good shape.
Experience: 6 years
Stanley Cup titles: 0
• After two years of constant speculation about his job security, Michel Therrien put those questions to rest with a big season that got him a new contract. His biggest achievement came in slowly but surely, convincing his young and talented team to commit to the defensive side of the game. It worked. The Penguins allowed the third-fewest goals in the Eastern Conference and were even stingier in the playoffs. The fiery Therrien can be quite hard on his players at times, something not all players react well to. But he mostly pressed the right buttons last season. His biggest challenge this season is to avoid the Cup hangover past finalists have felt.
STARTING FIVE ... AS WE SEE ITF -- Pascal Dupuis/Ruslan Fedotenko
• Both of these guys got a look on the first line during preseason. Fedotenko has more offensive skill, but Dupuis is reliable defensively.
F -- Sidney Crosby
• Entering his fourth season with the Pens. A healthy Crosby means a second Art Ross Trophy.
F -- Miroslav Satan
• Arrived from Islanders via free agency. Had his worst offensive season in 11 years. That won't happen with this team.
D -- Darryl Sydor
• Entering second season with Pens. Played only four playoff games during last spring's run to the finals. Now, he's needed again with the injuries to Gonchar and Whitney.
D -- Brooks Orpik
• Entering sixth season with Pens. Mr. Sandpaper on a team full of skill.
Answer: "In a way, you see that happen time and time again -- you see teams lose and then come back and win," said Crosby. "That's easy to say. I know we were always getting the comparisons to Edmonton [of the early 1980s]. We were a young team like they were. But I don't think that scenario was really close to us. In our case, we left it all out there. We worked hard and a lot of guys paid the price. We just didn't win. If anything, maybe we gave them a little too much respect in the first couple of games and got caught watching a little bit. I think the whole thing you take out of that is just the experience. What you see in Detroit -- their experience and how calm they were. That's just stuff you take with you."
Bust: Ryan Whitney, D: He's out until at least November, possibly quite longer, recovering from foot surgery. Besides, Whitney fell into Michel Therrien's doghouse with his down year and he'll have to play his way out of it.
Outlook: It all starts with studs Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, players who can carry a team on their shoulders individually when needed. Case in point: When Crosby went down, Malkin didn't skip a beat, keeping this team on track to the finals. With Crosby healthy, now the Penguins can deploy two star-studded lines; potential wing men Ruslan Fedotenko, Miroslav Satan, Petr Sykora and Jordan Staal will be thrilled to hear that. -- Tristan H. Cockcroft